Mary Low’s Feminist Reportage and the Politics of Surrealism

Emily Robins Sharpe


Mary Low and Juan Breá’s Red Spanish Notebook: The First Six Months of the Revolution and the Civil War (1937) narrates their experiences volunteering alongside Spanish and foreign volunteers in Spain in an effort to suppress the Francoist uprising and to transform the country’s social structures. Although their text has received little critical attention in examinations of Surrealism and international Spanish Civil War involvement, Red Spanish Notebook provides a unique and useful example of surrealist documentary photography. The book contains no actual photographs. However, Low periodically uses ekphrasis to undermine dominant notions of journalistic distance, especially in her discussions of Spain’s nascent women’s movement. By describing photographs of foreign and Spanish women on the front lines and the home front, and offering alternative interpretations of the images, Low illustrates the impossibility of objective reporting. In so doing, she brings political attention away from the war itself, and towards Spanish women’s concurrent struggle for equality. This essay examines Low’s use of ekphrasis to argue that she elevates and legitimizes Spanish feminism by reporting social revolution in the style of war journalism, while simultaneously constructing an ethics ofinternational collaboration and sympathy. Through their commentary on the perpetual slippages inherent in supposedly objective journalism and documentary photography, Low’s writings provide unique insight into surrealist feminism.

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